the wee morning hours of Sept. 4, Benchtop
brewer Eric Tennant got an airlift as urgent as a heart transplant.
The payload arriving at Norfolk
International Airport? Eighty pounds of sticky, green, tropical-aroma Citra hop
cones – fresh from their annual harvest in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
“They pick ‘em one afternoon, and we
get em the following morning, early a.m. delivery. That’s as fast as we can get
‘em,” Tennant said. “When they come in, the whole brewery just smells amazing.
Crushing those hops up and smelling those cones was the best thing I ever
The UPS bill alone was $500, Tennant
said, and he had to pull some strings – his grower doesn’t normally ship hops
cross-country on that kind of schedule.
But Tennant didn’t have time to savor
the hops. As fast as they arrived, those hops had to be brewed.
“It was all hands on deck,” Tennant
What was at stake was something only
possible once a year at the end of summer, something few Virginia brewers even
attempt: capturing the complex, grassy, often-volatile flavor of just-harvested
hops in a beer.
Most beers are made using dry hop
pellets. But fresh hop beers are brewed with unprocessed whole hops picked less
than 24 hours before: Wait longer, and the hops might start to spoil. The
result is a beer that tastes a little leafy and vegetal and maybe a bit wild –
in a word, fresh.
You’re reminded, more than ever, that
beer is agriculture. It comes from farms.
Benchtop’s Rippin’ Freshies IPA was
released Friday at Benchtop Brewing in Norfolk. Amid the big, juicy, tropical
notes that the Citra hops are known for, sniff the beer and you get a heady
whiff of the farm it was grown on. The beer tastes “green” – blooming with the
oils and aromatics and pollen of the unprocessed hop flower itself.
It’s got less aggressive fresh hop
flavor than some you might find in Oregon or Washington: The leafy flavor is
soft and mid-palate, an accent to a fully rounded beer.
“The thing I enjoy about it the most is
the aroma,” Tennant said. “You smell some tropical notes like guava up front,
and as you delve in it smells like when I rub those cones together. That’s why
Fresh hop beers aren’t very well known
in Virginia, where hop-farm acreage is measured in the tens – compared to about
40,000 acres in Washington. But in the Pacific Northwest, where nearly 90
percent of the hops used in American beer are grown, fresh hops are an
all-consuming beer phenomenon at the end of summer.
weekend holds a multitude of fresh hop festivals – and drinkers line up to
taste the “fresh” versions of beers they enjoy all year.
The results are notoriously
unpredictable. Sometimes a beer will be like the full and transcendent
expression of a hop flower. Sometimes it’s like somebody mowed a lawn in your
mouth. Always, it’s a lot of fun.
But Benchtop isn’t the only Virginia
brewery getting in on the fresh game.
In Afton, far to the northwest of
Hampton Roads, Blue Mountain Brewery tapped a fresh-hop beer called Hop Tub on
Friday, made with hundreds of pounds of fresh Cascade hops they grew themselves
– and harvested with the help of their community of fans. You might have to
drive out to Afton to try it, but Blue Mountain describes their hop terroir as
having a unique lime-rind flavor.
Meanwhile, Virginia Beer Co. in
Williamsburg had the same plan as Benchtop: They booked an airlift of
ever-popular Citra hops, which don’t grow very well in Virginia’s climate.
But it was not to be. Their shipment
was scheduled to arrive during Hurricane Florence’s landfall, says co-founder
Chris Smith, and delivery was canceled.
The hurricane didn’t arrive either, so
the delay was only a day. But fresh hops are only good fresh: A day later, and
they’re of no use. So Virginia Beer Co. switched its order to complex and
tropical Mosaic hops, which are harvested slightly later.
“We’re getting wet hops overnighted
from Washington State right now,” Smith said. “But for a lot of reasons that
will be a slower beer for us.”
Virginia Beer Co.’s fresh hop IPA won’t
drop till mid-October.
In the meantime, Benchtop’s Rippin’
Freshies should be available for the next couple of weeks, only at the brewery
on 1129 Boissevain Ave. The beer is too expensive to distribute to bars, and
Tennant won’t let it out of the brewery in crowlers or growlers.
But like all fresh hop beers, it’s best
when it’s freshest: Try it sooner than later. If you drink it by this weekend,
you might be drinking fresh-hop Citra beer sooner than most beer fans in
Oregon, where the hops were grown.
By using Norwegian
yeast called gong that brews fast and hot, Benchtop managed to beat
pretty much all the Pacific Northwest Citra fresh-hop beers to the market.
“We thought that was hilarious,”
Tennant said. “Out there, Simcoe (fresh hop) is the next one out. Citra beers
aren’t due out for another week or so.”